Small Annoyances


Small annoyances can become big marriage problems. What do I mean by small annoyances? Socks on the floor, cap off the toothpaste, water on the counter, putting a milk container with just one ounce of milk back in the refrigerator without buying more or putting it on the shopping list, leaving things on the passenger seat of the car, going missing while you’re shopping, getting out of bed second and leaving it unmade.

Which ones annoy you depends on your early experiences, your personality, and the sensitivity of your senses. And none of these are the same for your spouse, so the annoyance is not likely to be intentional unless you two have some other competition going on.

Just as you cannot enjoy a camping trip if you focus all of your attention on a mosquito bite or a buzzing fly, just as you cannot enjoy a meal if you obsess about the water stain on your knife, you cannot enjoy your marriage if you let yourself get distracted by these annoyances.

So, how do you ignore them? Well, you could time how long it takes to do the work you wish your spouse would do. If it’s less than a few minutes (and it’s often actually just seconds, I’ve discovered), just do it. Remember back to how much time you spent on looking for someone to love and on getting ready for every time you saw each other. That was a lot of time. Drying the sink or moving socks or even going to the convenience store for milk is not.

You can also treat it as a disagreement on what’s valuable to do, so you can look together for a Third Alternative. Believe me, your mate will be far more motivated to find a solution to YOUR problem than to changing his or her normal behavior because you criticized it. Remember, you’re dealing with someone for whom the value in avoiding this annoyance is not obvious. It’s only obvious to you because of what hidden buttons it pushes in you.

An example: My husband could never tolerate the idea of putting contact lenses in his eyes or even watching me deal with my lenses. He understood right away when I explained how huge his little whisker bits left in the sink looked when I was balancing this little bit of clingy plastic on my fingertip to wash it. He had no problem with finding a way to help me, even though he would still not agree with me that there is anything wrong with missing a few whiskers otherwise.

If you want any help coming up with a Third Alternative for one of the small annoyances in your relationship, use the comments below. Tell me what your wife or husband does that annoys you and why. Let’s make it less annoying.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • Ha ha! Were you peeking in my window this week? (Or into my heart tonight?) Earlier today I went into the bedroom to find the bed unmade–like it wasn’t for a long time, but is now, every day. And tonight I stood washing dishes while my husband (and children) stood nearby chatting. They were having a lovely bonding moment, and I was struggling with resentment and the awareness of how poorly I love. Sigh.

    So since you asked, and invited this comment, and since you seem to know my struggle, I’ll take you up on the offer for friendly advice.

    The bed: Yes, it annoys me when he’s the last one out and doesn’t make it. But there’s a history. For the past 20 years of our marriage we lived in a teeny house and the bed was in the living room. It bothered me that the unmade bed was visible through the front window and that the children would be climbing up into it and getting bits of dirt into the sheets I would be sleeping in. Understandable, right? But he would get up after I was up and about my business, and sometimes after I had left the house. We went through a VERY rough marriage patch which I will not elaborate on but I had felt terribly betrayed by some of his choices and when we went to counseling (at my request) and the counselor asked what actions I was requesting from him, I think we were all surprised that my two requests were 1) make the bed if he’s the last one out, and 2) do your own laundry. I felt like things were not fair, I struggle with feeling like I’m a servant and not appreciated, and I wanted to feel like I was married to a grownup (and not his mother). Looking back, I know that one of my main love languages is Loving Acts of Service–so maybe I was also unconsciously asking to be loved.

    And he did it–started making the bed when he was the last one up (which is 98% of the time), and did his own laundry. We worked through that season of struggle and I started doing his laundry again (it just makes sense so it was ok to resume once I felt like he had shown he was willing to do it) but he kept making the bed for several years–not as soon as he wakes up, but sometime not too long thereafter, which is a fine compromise. But in January we moved into a real house and have a bedroom of our own–yay!–and now he has stopped making the bed. I have asked him about it. He hasn’t given a reason why he’s not doing it–although he sometimes says things like, “well, it’s probably good for it to air out” or “well, we’re just going to get in it again.” I have not kicked a fit, but we had a deal, ever since counselling and now he’s going against it and clearly doesn’t seem to care. It’s a little thing, but it feels like a big thing–esp. since it coincides with lots of other things he knows I care about that we used to have an understanding about but now he’s not doing any of it, or at least not regularly (like reading scripture and praying together). I let it go for weeks, but this week I’ve started just making the bed. He works from home and right now his “office” is in our bedroom–which means he’s in there all day, right next to that unmade bed. And so when I go in and see the bed at 4 in the afternoon and start making it, he’s right there then too.

    So, I would appreciate the help. I don’t actually care about making the bed, but I do care about feeling disrespected. (I’m still doing all the things he asked for at our counselling.) So I will make the bed–but how do I handle the frustration and resentment?

    And i’ll go ahead and throw in the second thing I’m ‘struggling with tonight: the dishes. When we first got married he would wash dishes. But somewhere when the kids were little he stopped. He will stand and RINSE the dishes thoroughly and neatly stack all of it. But since we have never had a dishwasher, that means after he’s been there for 20 minutes he’s satisfied–but ALL THE DISHES STILL NEED TO BE WASHED. I try to tell him, just put the dishes in the sink and start washing dishes, and things get naturally rinsed while you wash. Saves time and water overall! But he will not do it. He will stand there for 20 minutes rinsing but will not actually wash dishes. So his effort ends with me then having to do the huge mound of dishes he just nicely rinsed. UGH. I want to appreciate him being thoughtful and helpful–except that it does not feel thoughtful or helpful. I don’t want to be nitpicky. I don’t think I am being–I’m not saying he has to wash dishes my way, but I’d love his effort to result in CLEAN DISHES. But I do confess that I struggle with a critical spirit (if you can’t already tell) and I’m trying to figure out when to let things go in the name of love and when I’m enabling life patterns in our marriage that I don’t want. I’m asking God to work in my heart, and I know love is a choice, but I think neither my husband or I know how to love well, and that makes me really sad. But I’m still struggling with how to do it better.

    All feedback from anyone who reads this rant is welcome!

    BTW, this blog is one of the things I found during that really bad marriage season, and your wisdom and grace and humility astounded me and greatly helped me. So in case no one has said it recently–thank you for what you do!

    • Blessed, I so appreciate hearing that this blog helped you two get through the hard times!

      Perhaps the dishes don’t need to be washed. They are rinsed, so they are not going to stink or grow things. Buy some pretty paper plates to use when the dishes are still there. Washing them yourself is not helping your marriage if that leads to resentment in your heart, corroding all that is good in your relationship. And no one looking in through the windows can tell if that’s a clean pile or one awaiting washing. And for Pete’s sake, don’t discourage him from rinsing, because then they really will need attention sooner than you can peacefully offer it.

      About the bed, be sure you don’t make it about the morality of bed making. If he can work next to an unmade bed, it’s quite clear he disagrees with you about the importance. The next time you make it at 4 pm, say kindly, “I really love seeing the bed made up nice. It makes this room feel like the special place it is.” If he’s still not inspired to tackle the job, consider paying a local teen two dollars a day to come in and make it before you get home on weekdays. I’d choose a young man for the job, I think. If he can make it in five minutes, that’s $24 an hour for him and just $10 a week for more love in your marriage.

      If you’re looking for love to be shown through Acts of Service, they will probably mean more if you let the person loving you choose the Acts of Service.

    • Blessed,
      What is his love language? What might happen if you initiated a friendly, relaxed conversation about each other’s language and learned to speak his well?
      Perhaps a shift in perspective from what he is not doing to what he does do and to being thankful for what you have and not for what you don’t would help keep the resentment at bay?
      We can’t help the thoughts that pop in to our heads but we can choose which ones we invite to stay and keep us company. (1 Corinthians 15:33 comes to mind.)

  • Hi Patty,

    Thank you for your insightful post.

    It reminded me of something that a relationship coach said, “boundaries and preferences are different.”

    I don’t have a problem with letting go of my preferences on how the chores should be done.
    I have a list of priorities in my head, and if an unmet need is not in the top three, I just do it myself.
    After all, we all have our ways of doing things.

    What annoys me is that my boyfriend voices his preferences quite often.
    For example, how to hang and fold the laundry, how clean the kitchen should be, etc.

    I feel unappreciated because I’m doing my best with the laundry, cooking, etc.
    He knows this, but can’t seem to let go.

    What do you recommend to the receiving end of the “small annoyances”?
    Should I just do things his way because it doesn’t take much time to do so?

    • Not sure why your marvelous question got caught in my spam filter, but I am so glad you asked, Clover. You get to decide whether to go along with his preferences or not.

      Whether you do or don’t, this loving reply comes in very handy: “I really appreciate that you let me know how you like things. So many couples have trouble communicating, and it’s really important to me to find out how you like them. We make a good team!” You can follow this up with either (a) “I’m going to try it that way and see if I can do this” or (b) “We have different preferences, so perhaps we can come up with an approach that pleases both of us. Are you willing to try looking for a Third Alternative that’s all ours?”

      As you look for that Third Alternative, remember to bring up the real reasons you don’t do something, so that the Third Alternative addresses those reasons. Does it take too long to get the kitchen as clean as would make him feel more comfortable? The answer might be to trade off something else you don’t like doing. Or it might be for him to take on a responsibility that he never saw as a separate task but you do, like cleaning out the toaster crumbs or washing down the counters before going to bed. A task that makes him feel good about the kitchen without needing to “scold” his wife or take over the entire kitchen cleanup just might work for both of you. Or perhaps hanging the laundry can become a chore you do together, his way but with some loving playfulness or even music thrown in. Play is one of the easiest ways to change habits we don’t really want to change.

      • Hi Patty,
        Thank you so much for your reply.
        Finding a third alternative is a lovely idea.
        I love your suggestion of making the task enjoyable, too.
        I’ll try them out.
        ps. I LOVE your blog! It’s the best relationship blog that I have ever read. I look forward to your future posts, too.

By Patty Newbold

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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